Monday, July 26, 2021

Tales within the clouds (Folktales of Chinese minorities 11. - Nakhi)

 As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Tales from within the clouds

Nakhi stories of China
Carolyn Han & Jaiho Cheng
University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

A slim, but beautifully illustrated volume that contains ten folktales. The Nakhi number about 300,000 people, and they have migrated from Tibet to the area of Yunnan and Sichuan around the start of CE. They are known for the fact that a large group of them is still matriarchal, marriage is not common among them, and they only have a word for mother, not father.
The tales were translated from Chinese to English by Jaiho Cheng, and retold by Carolyn Han with close attention to the original content and meaning. The short introduction talks about Nakhi culture, storytelling, and the importance of folktales and women heroes. The book is illustrated by the paintings of Li Ji, an artist from Yunnan.


An old favorite of my from this book is the Nakhi creation myth, in which four women - Thinker, Doer, Seer, and Wisdom - find a way to rid the world of an evil serpent. They trick the serpent into stealing the egg of Golden Wings, a giant bird that kills the monster in revenge. The serpent's body transforms into mountains.
I also loved the tale about the Heavenly sisters, Sun and Moon. Sun was lazy and easily angered, while Moon was patient and hard-working. When they wanted to go on a journey together, Moon set out without waiting for her sleeping sister. Sun ran after her in a hurry, forgetting she was naked - and has been blinding people ever since to cover herself up.
The tale of the cicadas was a bit creepy: it explained why they spend several years underground, but it also claimed they "grow little umbrellas" against the sun... except said green umbrellas are a parasitic fungus that grows out of the cicadas it kills. The same phenomenon appeared in the story of Miss Chongcao, the origin legend of the Chinese caterpillar fungus. The caterpillar in the tale put on green or brown clothes, depending on who wanted to eat her.
I liked the message in the Arrogant azalea story: in a beauty contest among flowers, the azalea belittled and bullied the Pine Tree - who ended up getting the award from the Queen of Flowers for its inner beauty anyway.


I was reminded of folktales from Africa by the story that explains why dogs lap water. Here, the lazy dog did not help others deal with channeling water, so he was forbidden from drinking it. Ever since then, he has to lap water secretly, in a hurry.
Tricksters were represented by Flea, who had a race-like contest with Louse about who could collect more wood. In the end, Flea was defeated by his own impatience.

Who's next?

Monday, July 12, 2021

The children of snow (Folktales of Chinese minorities 10. - Yi)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

The ​Nuosu Book of Origins
A Creation Epic from Southwest China 
University of Washington Press, 2019.

The Yi live in Southwest China and number about nine million. This minority group is divided into various subgroups, each with their own name and identity. Among them, the Nuosu are the largest (about 2.3 million) - the epic in this book belongs to their tradition. It was translated as a collaboration between Mark Bender (who also translated the Miao epics) and Aku Wuwu (a prominent Nuosu scholar and poet).

Bimo. Pic from here
This traditional epic is known as The Book of Origins, and it contains creation myths, origin stories, genealogies, and migration legends. It has been passed down through generations for hundreds of years in manuscripts written in Yi script (different from Chinese writing). The text translated in the book was hand-copied and translated by Jjivot Zopqu, a traditional Nuosu mediator, from an older text. It is divided into 29 sections, presenting a fairly complete epic from a single source (as opposed to the versions pieced together from multiple sources by Chinese folklorists). This epic is usually recited by ritual experts called bimo on important occasions, often for several hours. Sometimes at weddings or funerals traditional singers also performed parts of it. The book comes with footnotes, references, pronunciation guides, appendices, and many other resources. The long introduction talks about Yi/Nuosu culture, everyday life, rituals, and the epic tradition.


I loved it that the epic presents humans as one part of Nature's whole, our existence intertwined with that of plants and animals. The part where the Great Bimo, Awo Shubu, filled the world with plants and matching animals was especially beautiful. Later on, when almost everything was burned up by the six suns, red snow fell three times, and transformed into new creatures - the Twelve Sons of Snow. Ice turned to bone, snow turned to flesh, wind turned to breath. Six of the twelve became "beings without blood" (plants), while six became "beings with blood" (animals and humans). Their descendants and proliferation are detailed in the epic in a sort of folk taxonomy. It was especially intriguing that horses, which are not native to the area, were hatched from four snow-eggs by butterflies. On the advice of a frog spirit, humans and crows drank from the Water of Wisdom, and became the most intelligent among living beings.
The larger half of the epic details the genealogies and migrations of various tribes, with lots of names and repetition (kinda like the "begets" in the Bible). It was interesting to see why people decided not to settle in various unsuitable places, but other than that only a few short episodes disrupted the lists. One of the most exciting was the contest between two families, Hxuo and He, who competed in a series o shapeshifting challenges. Eventually, they were reconciled, and joined their children in marriage.

Nuosu manuscript with
Zhyge Alu, from here
There was an episode, not included in this version of the epic but mentioned in the notes, about the invention of the lightning rod. The hero Zhyge Alu found a village where people were afraid to light fires in the house, worried lightning would strike their roof. The hero climbed up to a roof wearing a copper helmet and a copper club, and managed to trap lightning in a copper net. Lightning as a living being was mentioned multiple times in the epic; it was noted that twelve kinds of lightning form a family that sleeps underground in the winter, and snores loudly in the spring.


This epic once again featured the motif of separating earth and sky (and propping the sky up with columns). Here the job was done by deities, spirits, and immortals, and the brand new sky and earth were swept clean by nine fairies with nine iron-copper brooms. There was also the motif of multiple suns and moons: Anyu Ddussy, the Spirit Monkey, summoned six suns and seven moons, along with all the constellations. The suns scorched the world almost to extinction, although a few animals (such as the water deer) managed to survive. The surplus heavenly bodies were shot down by the great hero Zhyge Alu. He was raised by dragons in a cave. He climbed various trees to get a vantage point for shooting, but only the fir could support him, which is why it is still respected among the trees. The last sun fled and hid, and had to be lured out by a rooster.
The fiery apocalypse was followed by another classic: a great flood. Here the only human survivor was the kind-hearted Jjumu Vuvu, who hid in a wooden box. He rescued various floating animals (a rat, a venomous snake, a bee, a frog, etc.), who in turn helped him get a bride from the sky. But since the elopement was not approved by the sky spirit, their children were born mute, and they needed the help of the mythical Apuyoqo bird to steal the secret of speech from the sky. Thus, various languages were born.
Another motif that appeared in the epic was that of the clever maiden who posed riddles to her suitor. The hero Shyly Wote failed to answer them, and he needed the help of his clever sister to win the bride anyway.

Nuosu women weaving together, image from here

Who's next?
The Nakhi people

Monday, July 5, 2021

Love and dragons (Folktales of Chinese minorities 9. - Bai)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Once again I could not find a whole book, so I gathered tales from many different volumes. The Bai live in Yunnan, numbering about two million people. They are surrounded by a gorgeous landscape of mountains and lakes, which does not only make the place popular with tourists but also colors local stories equally beautiful. Among other things, the Bai are known for cormorant fishing and dragon boat races.


Many of my ever-favorite folktales from China are actually Bai stories. For example, I have adored the legend of Wild Goose Lake for a long time. It is a story of friendship between a human girl and a dragon princess who share a love for singing, and work together to end a drought and bring water to the people. In the end they even move in together. Another favorite of mine is the Dragon carved from wood, in which a carpenter helps an entire village create a magical dragon to combat the evil monster that lives in their lake. It is a long, elaborate, and amazing story.

I also like the legend of Green Dragon Pond, in which a dragon befriends and old monk and they play chess together every day. However, the friendship comes to an end when the monk wants to see the dragon in his true (non-human) form. The same issue appeared in the legend about the Dragon King of Langchiung. A brave man sacrificed his life to kill an evil snake, and he was reborn as a dragon. Later on he befriended a scholar and helped him through various adventures; but when the scholar wanted to see his true form, the sight scared him to death. He became a deity as well, and people worship the two friends together. The legend of Erhai Lake also featured dragons: the battle of the Big Black Dragon and the Small Yellow Dragon ended with the victory of the latter, who was smaller, but also braver and smarter.
One of the most well-known Bai legends was about a princess named Awa who fell in love with a hunter. The lovers managed to elope together (with the help of some magic), but Awa's father retaliated against the hunter, and the story came to a tragic end. The princess died of grief and turned into a white cloud over Mt. Cangshan that brings wind, seeking her lost beloved among the waters of the lake below. The same story appeared in a beautifully illustrated version in this book, and also in the Yunnan collection.
Another beautiful yet tragic love story was the Spring of Butterflies from Dali. Here, lovers persecuted by a tyrant jumped into a bottomless lake together, and transformed into thousands of butterflies. Their death angered the people, who overthrew the tyrant later on. Luckily, not all love stories came to a tragic ending: the legend of the Phoenix fez also featured an evil king pursuing two lovers, but here the captured maiden managed to escape and reunite with her beloved. Her phoenix fez became a symbol of love and good luck.
Another beautiful lake legend was attached to Horse Washing Pond in Dali, in the same book as the butterfly spring. It was about a kind and brave young man who discovered the pond there heavenly winged horses came to bathe and drink. He dug a channel from the pond to end a drought, accepting the fate of turning into stone as punishment for his heroic act.


In one book I found a new legend about the origin of salt (I love those). This one was about a girl named Gunv who discovered the secret of salting food. However, her brother's spirit boar grew jealous and killed her; her spirit deer uncovered the crime, and Gunv became the Goddess of Salt.
There was also another legend about a rich man whose greed made his fields sink underwater. Justice here was served by a magic ox, summoned by a poor boy with a magic flute.

Who's next?
The Yi people

Monday, June 28, 2021

The people of the White Tiger (Folktales of Chinese minorities 8. - Tujia)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

I could not find a full book of Tujia folktales, so I went scavenging in various publications. 

The Volume of Tujia and Bai Ethnic Groups
Classical myths of China's 56 ethnic groups
Li Xueqin & Pan Shouyong
New Buds Publishing House, 2013.

The Tujia are an ethnic group of about eight million people, who live in the heart of Chine in the Wuling Mountains. They are known for their traditional dancing, singing, and exquisitely woven xilankapu brocades.


The book above only had two Tujia stories. One was about eight brothers, born along with a little sister; their father abandoned the boys in the wilderness. They were raised by a dragon and a phoenix. They returned home strong and brave, took care of their family, protected their village, and later on, when their sister became empress (with the help of a magpie), they even defended the kingdom from an invading army. The other story was a lovely myth about the goddess Lady Yiro, who created the first humans from all kinds of vegetables after two (male) creators failed in their attempts. Just so you know, our bones are made of bamboo, and our flesh is made of radishes.

I also found an article about how, unlike in many traditions, tigers are positive characters in Tujia folklore. One legend says their ancestor was the child of a tiger and a human; another famous myth claims their first leader turned into a white tiger after his death, which is why the Tujia call themselves "the offspring of the White Tiger". In one story, a woodcutter helped a tiger who had porcupine quills in its mouth; in exchange, the tiger helped him get a wife, and even accompanied him to war at the head of a tiger army. In another tale, a painter saved a tiger from a trap, and in exchange the tiger saved him when he had an accident in the mountains. A third story was about a midwife, asked by a tiger to help his mate give birth.
The famous xilankapu brocades also had their own origin story. It was about a girl who could weave marvelous patterns, and the flowers and birds she created came to life. One night, however, when she went out to admire gingko flowers, she was killed by a jealous brother-in-law. The brocades got her name to honor her memory.


Among the Tujia creation myths I encountered the familiar tropes of the flood and multiple suns together. The two creators, Zhang Guolao and Li Guolao, created 12 suns to dry up the land after a great flood, but the suns created so much heat that a brave frog quickly had to swallow eleven of them to save the world from being scorched up. In another version of the story nine out of ten suns were shot down with arrows by brave young men, and the tenth hid in fear. It had to be lured out again; the Rooster accomplished the task, and ever since then every June the Tujia celebrate the return of the light with a Sun Festival.
As for tricksters, I found a collection of stories about a clever and witty woman named Luo Lanjiao; among others, she played the role of the clever maid who gives fitting answers to a magistrate's riddles.

Who's next?
The Yi people

Thursday, June 24, 2021

StorySpotting: They don't make critters that big anymore (Love and Monsters)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

I finally watched Love and Monsters on Netflix, and I have things to share.

Where was the story spotted?

Love and Monsters (2020)

What happens?

"The destruction of an asteroid headed for Earth releases chemical fallout, causing cold-blooded animals to mutate into large monsters and kill off most of humanity."
The movie has some spectacularly designed giant insects, worms, frogs, crabs, and other creepy-crawlies.

What's the story?

Incidentally, the fear of gigantic creepy-crawlies is nothing new to the human imagination. Let's take them in order of appearance:

Giant ant

Large (small dog-sized) gold-digging ants might be familiar to people who read Herodotus. They don't necessarily eat people, but they do attack anyone who approaches their nest. The Irish Voyage of Mael Duin legend, on the other hand, features a whole island of man-eating ants as big as foals (by the way, the folktale motif number for those is B16.6.1). 
In a Dominican version of the "Boots and the Beasts" folktale type, the hero gains the ability to transform into various animals - among them, a monstrously large ant. In a Namibian folktale two siblings accidentally grow an ordinary ant into a giant monster. All the animals try to defeat it together, but it is finally killed by a puff adder's venom and the arrows and ax of the father of the children.

Giant toad

Probably one of the most well-known large frog stories is the Australian Aboriginal myth of Tiddalik, the frog that drinks up all the water in the world, and has to be tricked into laughing to release it. Another famous example is the Japanese legend of Jiraiya, in which the main character gains the magic ability to summon frogs and toads and grow them to enormous sizes. He uses this ability (in tandem with his wife Tsunade) to defeat the serpent magician Orochimaru. If you feel like this sounds familiar, you probably watched Naruto.
There is a Tsimshian legend about a boy who creates a clever trap to kill a giant, copper-clawed frog and take on its skin and powers. In a Macedonian folktale, eternal summer grows frogs and toads so large that they threaten to take over civilization. When the Toad King tries to kidnap St. Peter's daughter, the saint finally finds a way to end the heat wave. In a legend from the Khasi in Northeast India, the beautiful girl Ka Nam is first helped, then enslaved by a giant toad named U Hynroh. When she escapes into the sky and joins the household of the Sun, the toad wages war on her - which is what causes solar eclipses.
In more recent sources, the Wuhnan Toads of China deserve a mention. They are large, voracious albino amphibians that pursue people who disturb them. One of them allegedly even ate a camera tripod.

Giant worms

One notable story is the tale of the Giant Caterpillar from the Ivory Coast. In it, a giant and ugly caterpillar swallows a young boy, and when the men of the village fail to defeat it, the women band together and beat the monster to death. In an Inuit legend a young man named Kivio goes on an adventure and encounters an evil old woman who eats people. The woman's protective spirit is a giant worm that attacks Kivio, but the boy shoots arrows at it and manages to kill it.
In the Persian Book of Kings there is a legend about a giant worm raised by a man named Haftvad and his daughter. The worm brings good fortune, and the bigger it grows the better the luck of its owners is. However, the worm is evil, and it corrupts Haftvad as well, until he becomes drunk with power. Finally, a hero named Ardashir defeats the monster with molten lead.

Giant snail

Giant snails are somewhat less common in folklore, but we can still rustle up a few. The Sarmatian Sea Snail is a delightful specimen of medieval legends, complete with antlers and meat with curative powers. Another large snail (laconically called Snail) haunts the city of Hastingues in France.

Giant centipede

Possibly the most famous giant centipede story is the Japanese Tawara Toda Monogatari. It features a brave samurai, Fujiwara no Hidesato, who is recruited by a Dragon Queen to help her kill a giant centipede (omukade) that has destroyed many of her family. He manages to kill the monster with an arrow that he'd spit on, after saliva-free arrows don't do the trick. Monster-hunters, take note.
In a Yaqui legend the giant centipede monster (chupia) travels inside a whirlwind. It is bigger than a human, and a man chops it to death with an ax. (Centipedenado, anyone?).
There is also a Thai folktale in which a kind boy saves and raises a snake. When he later travels to take examinations in the city, the snake follows him, and saves him by battling a giant centipede that has killed many people. An even larger centipede monster is mentioned in a legend from Myanmar: this one is big enough to hunt and eat elephants, and build its lair from their ivory.
A Korean folktale (A father's legacy) mentions a giant centipede that ate thirty people. It is killed with a gun by the hero, who uses a woman as bait... Interestingly, the Korean hero Nam Yi was believed to be the reincarnation of the spirit of a giant centipede that was killed by another hero for demanding human sacrifice. Nam Yi retained some supernatural, ghost-related powers from his origins. 
On an even more disturbing note, in a folktale from Assam a man with the evil eye transforms into a giant centipede in his sleep, chasing people around. When his family is burned for their ability, they pass on their evil eye powers to those who killed them. Oops.

Giant crab

Spoiler alert: the giant crab in the movie turns out to be a friendly creature. Hands down my favorite friendly giant crab story is an indigenous legend from Taiwan, where a giant snake causes a flood, and people are saved by a giant crab that takes up the battle against the serpent. To protect it in the fight, people make a giant clay shell for it; but since time is short, the crab puts on the shell while it is still hot, accepting the pain in order to help. 
A hero of the Garo people enlists the help of a loathsome giant crab, Songduni Angkorong Sagalni Damohong, The Terror of the Sea, to threaten his grandmother into helping him defeat another monster. This creature "was a hideous loathsome-looking being. It had projecting eyes that seemed to be constantly glaring , long , flexible feelers and gigantic claws with which it used to nip its victims to shreds." On a friendlier note, the legend of Our Lady of the Barn from Guam tells of a "naked fisherman" who finds a statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the sea, guarded by a giant crab carrying two candles in its pincers.
A Haida legend tells of the giant crab of Chief Rock that served a famous chief by guarding the entrance to his harbor. Eventually it kills a lot of people, and a young man (who learns how to turn himself into a halibut) manages to kill it in an underwater battle. 
Another giant (golden) crab appears in the Kakkata Jataka, in which the Buddha is born as an elephant, and is captured by the crab that likes to eat elephants. With the help of his mate he breaks free, and tramples the monster. A giant, ship-sinking hermit crab features into an adventurous navigation legend from the Maldives. According to Moken tradition, tides are caused by a giant crab that lives under a sky-high mango world tree. There is also the giant crab from Indonesia that ferries girls across a river in exchange for a kiss...
But giant crabs are no strangers to European mythologies either: the constellation Cancer is based on a giant crab named Karkinos that tried to stop Herakles from killing the Hydra, and in the legend of Theseus the famous murderer Skeiron kicks his victims into the sea to be devoured by a giant crab (sometimes a turtle). 


Rule of animals in folklore: if it exists, there is probably also a giant version of it.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Tales in the community (Folktales of Chinese minorities 7. - Hakka)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Studies in Hakka folktales
Wolfram Eberhard
Chinese Association for Folklore, 1974.

The Hakka are not one of the 55 recognized ethnic minorities of China; they are considered a subgroup of the Han Chinese, but they are clearly defined in their cultural and linguistic identity; their population numbers somewhere between 80 and 100 million. The tales of this book were collected from the Hakka communities of Taiwan in the 1970s (many of whom migrated to the island from Fujian Province in China). The collectors interviewed more than 500 people, none of them storytellers, seeking answers to research question such as "how do folktales reflect the values of a community?" and "what are the most popular tales among the Hakka?"
According to the collector, folktale books often focus on the unique repertoires of highly talented storytellers, and therefore they don't necessarily reflect the full array of stories a community has. He wanted to know what the most liked and generally known folktales are among the Hakka, and how they reflect cultural values. To this goal, many Hakka people were interviewed with specific questionnaires, including a wide range: young and old, women and men, urban and rural informants were equally represented in the sample. The book's introduction describes the project in great detail with numbers and statistics. It introduces the most common genres (e.g. myths, legends), the values most often mentioned (honesty, filial piety, kindness, etc.), the possible sources of the tales, and people's opinions on them. The research project included more than 500 stories.
The tales themselves are embedded into analysis and academic discussion throughout the book; some of them are published in more than one version for comparison. The author compares their popularity to their Chinese counterparts, and references the Chinese folktale type index. Later on the researchers also interviewed talented storytellers (although still excluded the professional ones), to compare their repertoire to the communities'. This two-pronged approach was used to delineate a full picture of Hakka folktales in Taiwan.
At the end of the book there is a list of the stories with titles, type numbers, and two-line summaries - which to me as a storyteller was equal parts fascinating and frustrating.


I was intrigued by the tale in which a theater play was interrupted by a ghost. The ghost approached the actor portraying the legendary Judge Pao, asking for justice in his own murder. The actor remained in character, and the murder was solved. Otherwordly justice also figured into the story where a poor man lodged a complaint against Yenlo Wang, ruler of the Underworld, for assigning him a miserable fate. With his persistence, he managed to convince the deity to rewrite his fate.
I liked the stories about the grateful bees who helped a person who rescued them; and also the legend of Pan-pien Mountain, in which an old man was giving away baskets of dumplings for free, and rewarded the one kind young man who insisted on paying a fair price anyway. Kindness also featured into the story of In the light and In the dark, which started out as a rich brother-poor brother tale, but the brothers mutually supported and helped each other instead of fighting. 
The legend of the daffodils was especially lovely. The gods gifted an ever-blooming daffodil field to a poor boy who lost his inheritance.


After the Zhuang tales I once again encountered the delightful "fragrant farts" folktale type. Among other classics there was a version of the legend of the Weaver Girl and the Cowherd, the origin of the animal zodiac, and also the story where a father makes his sons dig up the garden by promising them buried treasure. I was happy to see a new variant for the Chinese story of the friendship of a fisherman and a ghost. There were some stories of possibly Japanese origin, such as Urashima Taro, and the eight-headed dragon defeated by Susanoo.
Some common folktale types also appeared in the collection, such as Aladdin (with the grateful cat and dog who ended up hating each other), golden ax, kind and unkind girls (Big Gold and Little Gold), animal husband (here a snail, who ended up reclaiming his stolen snail shell in an Aladdin-like story), and Fortunatus (here three young men adopted an old beggar as their father, and received magic items from him). 
Among the trickster figures there was a monkey (who usually messed up his tricks), and a clever young scholar named Li Wen-ku.

Who's next?
The Tujia people

Monday, June 14, 2021

Songs of Gold and Silver (Folktales of Chinese minorities 6. - Miao)

As a sequel to the Following folktales around the world reading challenge, I decided to start reading minority and indigenous folktales. First up are the minority peoples who live in China. You can find previous posts here, and you can follow the challenge on Facebook here.

Butterfly ​Mother 
Miao (Hmong) Creation Epics from Guizhou, China
Mark Bender
Hackett, 2006.

This book contains five Miao creation epics, unfolding a fascinating mythical landscape.
The Miao are an ethnicity of about 12 million, out of which more than 9 million live in China as one of the 55 officially recognized minorities. They are divided into various subgroups, all with their own names. The introduction to the book gives a detailed description of Miao culture, customs and oral tradition (as well as a look at other epics from China). Since the Miao language did not have a written version until 1945, the oral tradition continued strong well into the 20th century. The texts in the book were collected in the 1950s, then, after a hiatus for political reasons, collection started again in the 1980s. 
The sung epics in the book are usually performed as a collaboration between two (or two pairs of) story-singers. It's a playful contest, in which one side sings part of the epic then poses a question. The other side has to answer the question with the appropriate verses, then pose a question of their own ("And then who helped them?"; "What was the house built from?" etc.). If someone cannot answer the question, they are ridiculed for it; epic-singing is a challenge of creativity and knowledge. Singers (such as Jin Dan, one of the collectors and co-authors of the book) spend their life collecting new questions and answers, and adding them to their repertoire. In addition they also collect "song flowers", lyrical elaborations that can be used to expand and color the epic song's "bones". Sadly, only a few of these were included in the book, because otherwise the texts would have been too long.
The introduction also talks about how epics are shaped by collection, translation, and editing. None of the five epics included are usually performed this completely: the collectors gathered versions of them from various singers, and then assembled a full series of questions and verses to make a "master text" (since every singer has their own, different set of collected questions and verses). Singing one of these full texts could take up to ten days, although in reality it is not rare for singers to compete for three full days. They often go seeking competition in other towns, challenging each other in song. It is amazing how well-practiced singer pairs can perform together flawlessly, and how the two sides negotiate which epic to sing - in song. Only one of these sung negotiation "preludes" is included in the book, but it was a fascinating read.

"A sung word is worth a hundred spoken", claims the Miao wisdom. But even so, reading these epics was still an amazing experience.
(You can watch a short video about the singing tradition here)


Since five epics are features in the book, and all were very unique, I decided to count all of them as highlights.

The Song of Gold and Silver
was about the origin of metals and the forging of heavenly bodies (the Miao are famous for their metalwork). The metals appeared as living beings who grew up, married, traveled, etc. The song begins with the old times, when Earth and Sky were stuck together, and the Sky had to be raised onto pillars to create space. The metals, born from broken rocks, were cleaned and suckled by Grandma No, gaining their unique colors. Later they all married: Silver married Borax (which is used for cleaning it), Gold married Water Chestnut, Tin married Pine Resin, Iron married Bellows, etc. Later the metals fled towards the East (the ancestral home of the Miao), hiding in water and rocks, but they were found and brought back eventually, to be used for making suns and moons. The process was described in great detail; 12 suns and 12 moons were forged, transported, and fastened to the sky. Along the way stars and many other objects and creatures were also born from extra pieces and discarded tools. In the end, since 24 heavenly bodies gave too much heat, a hero named Hsang Sa shot down 22 of them, leaving only one sun and one moon in the sky.

The Song of the Ancient Sweet Gum was also a creation myth. Here the seeds of various trees and plants lived together in a house, until the house burned down. They also fled to the East, but were brought back by the hero Xang Liang, who cultivated the land and planted the seeds. The whole epic was full of practical information about agriculture. In the end, a great old sweet gum tree was accused (falsely) of stealing fish, and cut down; all parts of the tree turned into various beings, such as Butterfly Mother from the next song.
One of the most interesting moments of the epic was about a rock that was used to make paper. Tired of continually being beaten, the rock ate up all the paper - explaining why the Miao did not have a written language for centuries. 

The Song of Butterfly Mother
is an epic of special importance, usually performed by experts during ancestor sacrifice rituals. Butterfly Mother, born from the Ancient Sweet Gum, grows pregnant from Water Foam, and lays twelve eggs. The eggs are hatched by the mythical Ji Wi bird (also born from the tree). One of the twelve children is Jang Vang, the ancestor of humanity, while the others include Thunder God, Water Dragon, snake, tiger, and elephant. Their umbilical cords are cut, and turn into various things: Jang Vang's into rice, the dragon's into a turtle, etc. Dragon's cord is cut with copper, which is why dragons are afraid of copper to this day. The pieces of eggs turn into clouds and other phenomena. The rest of the epic details the birth of tools and rituals needed for ancestor sacrifice.

The Great Flood is a flood epic not unlike many others around the world. It is preceded by the animosity between Jang Vang and Thunder God. Jang Vang survives in a large gourd along with his sister, whom he has to marry to repopulate the earth. The issue of sibling incest is debated in great detail. In the end, it turns out to be the wrong choice: instead of a baby, a ball of flesh is born, which Jang Vang cuts up, creating various ethnic groups. (The collectors did not publish the details, afraid to offend anyone; they only say the Han were made form the flesh, and the Miao were made from the bones.)

Westwards, Upriver is more historical legend than creation myth: it details the migration of the Miao from their ancestral home in the East to where they live now. On the way they encounter and overcome various obstacles (such as a dragon, a giant toad, and a giant eagle), although some of them are created by their own thoughtless behavior. One important character in the story is the magpie who scouts ahead to find good land, and the Ant King, who teaches the Miao how to walk in single file.

Who's next?
The Hakka people